Category Archives: Queer Saints and Martyrs

SS Galla (5 October) and Benedicta (6 May): Roman nuns – and lovers?

One of the curiosities of the Catholic tradition of honouring our saints and martyrs, is how hagiography seamlessly combines historical biography, myth with collective amnesia. The stories of Saints Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, for instance, are replete with well-known legends that have absolutely no verifiable foundation in historical fact, and the delightful story of St Wilgefortis (aka Uncumber), the crucified bearded woman, turns out to have a much more plausible basis in reality. For many other saints, the distortions of hagiography are not just the accretions that are added by popular imagination, but the important details that are so often omitted in the transmission down the ages. St Paulinus, for instance, is widely honoured for his missionary work and for the impressive quality of his Latin devotional poetry. The standard Catholic sources on the saints, however, discreetly omit any reference to his other poetic legacy – equally fine homoerotic verse addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius.

The story of Saints Galla and Benedicta of Rome may be another example of this selective memory.  

 

Neither of these is particularly well-known, and Benedicta is even less-so than Galla, but I start with her. There are references to her scattered across the internet, but they all seem to come down to a few lines similar to these, from Catholic Online:

Mystic and nun. Benedicta lived in a convent founded by St. Galla in Rome. Pope St. Gregory the Great states that St. Peter appeared in a vision to warn her of her approaching death.

This seems innocuous enough, until it is set against the parallel warning of imminent death that St Gregory also gave to the better known St Galla.

From a large selection of on-line sources, Wikipedia sums up the key uncontested points of her story, those widely reported elsewhere:

Galla was the daughter of Roman patrician Symmachus the Younger, who was appointed consul in 485. Galla was also the sister-in-law of Boethius. Her father, Symmachus the Younger, was condemned to death, unjustly, by Theodoric in 525. Galla was then married but was soon widowed, just over a year after marriage. It was believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage. Being wealthy, she decided to retreat to theVatican Hill, and found a hospital and a convent, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Galla is reputed to have once healed a deaf and mute girl, by blessing some water, and giving it to the girl to drink. Galla remained there for the rest of her life, tending to the sick and poor, before dying in 550, of breast cancer. 

 Notice, please, that little sentence tucked away in the middle, and its cautious qualifier: “it was  believed that she grew a beard, to avoid further offers of marriage.” This strategy of a holy woman, to grow a beard to avoid marriage, is precisely that adopted by Wilgefortis. Her legend appears to have a much more mundane explanation. I have no knowledge of any firm evidence to either corroborate, or to contradict, Galla’s legendary beard. What interests me is the rest of Galla’s story, and its treatment in hagiography.

An article at Catholic Culture is a good example. It seizes on the beard, and uses it as a moral fable, encouraging us to “dare to be different”.  Catholic Culture, however, claims that the beard story was only a threat, and the beard never did grow.

A story about St. Galla of Rome, illustrating the importance to not follow the crowd, but to be oneself. Legend says that St. Galla, after becoming a widow, grew a beard to avoid any offers of remarriage.

Not only girls who want to be nuns, but girls who just want to be good have to ignore a marvelous lot of nonsense from those who “follow the pack.” Life will pass you by, they say, and you won’t have any fun if you don’t do as we do! About as fast as St. Galla grew her beard, it will!

 So, then dare to be different – the cause of following holiness. But there’s one little detail also included in the  same article, which they do not comment on – a detail that has been omitted from all the other accounts I have seen about Galla. These all tell how, as reported by St Gregory, St Peter appeared to Galla in her final illness to predict the date of her imminent death. The other reports omit the crucial detail that the deaths of Galla and Benedicta were directly linked – at Galla’s express request to Peter:

One night she saw St. Peter standing before her between two candlesticks and she asked him if her sins were forgiven her. St. Peter nodded and said, “Come, follow me.” But Galla asked if her dear friend Benedicta might come too. Yes, she might, said St. Peter, after thirty days — and that is precisely what happened. St. Galla and another holy woman departed this life for heaven three days later, and Benedicta thirty days after them.

 As Censor Librorum at  Nihil Obstat noted in her reflection on Galla last December, a woman who first grows or threatens to grow a beard to avoid marriage, and then implores Saint Peter to allow her female beloved to accompany her into heaven, is not displaying a conventional heterosexual orientation.

I have no hesitation in hesitation in adding Saints Galla and Benedicta to my collection of queer saints and lovers.

Queer Saints and Martyrs for October

October

  • Oct 2nd
  • St Poplia , woman deacon (Womenpriests.org)
  • October 31st
    • Hallowe’en?

Victim 0001, the Saint of 9/11: Father Mychal Judge

The body of Mychal Judge was tagged with the designation “Victim 0001” — the first official casualty of 9/11. In the famous Shannon Stapleton/Reuters photo, he is being carried out of the lobby of the North Tower, where he had been killed by debris from the collapsing South Tower. He was a Catholic priest of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, assigned to the monastery at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in Manhattan. He was also a chaplain with the New York Fire Department (NYFD) and one of the first responders to the attack on the twin towers. He was a recovered alcoholic… and he was gay.”

Queer Saints for September

  • Sep 21st
    • Henri Nouwen?
  • St Edward II King of England, 1284 -1327 (LGBT Catholic Handbook)

Edith Stein, "St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross"

Today, Aug 9th, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of “St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross” – better known to most people as Edith Stein, Jewish convert to Catholicism, and nun who died in the Nazi gas chambers on August 9th 1942, and was later canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

There is nothing that directly links her to gay or lesbian Catholics, but indirectly I was struck, when reading her story this morning, of how many parallels and points of similarity there are between her situation and ours, that offer abundant material for reflection. This is a new idea for me, which I still need to think through and investigate – but as her day is still fresh, I offer them raw, as they are, while still topical. Perhaps some readers would like to help me to think this through further.

The earliest part of her life that is directly relevant is that she was born a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Judaism is an intensely inward-looking, family oriented culture and religion. For a Jewish person converting to Catholicism, this is much more than simply changing a set of religious beliefs, as in moving from one Christian denomination to another: it involves moving outside an entire culture, possibly including rejection or hostility from family members, and former friends and fellow worshippers. Conversely, adopting Catholicism includes becoming familiar with Catholic culture, quite as much as with Catholic belief and spiritual practices. As lesbians and gay men – and even more for those who adopt a gender identity that departs from biological sex – we grow up in a heterosexual culture and specific gender expectations that we become familiar with, even as we realize that we do not fit. In coming out, and rejecting the “automatic” sexual identity that had been imposed on us for one more in keeping with our authentic selves, we too may find ourselves rejected by family, friends, or colleagues – and certainly by some in the heterosexual world. Instead, just like Edith Stein who had to learn to absorb Catholic culture, we have to learn to find our way around a whole new culture in the LGBT community. Young heterosexuals have complex processes of socialization that guide and help them learn the patterns of sexual interaction and being, in their families, in schools, and from popular culture. Newly out homosexuals have to learn these things for themselves.

Edith was not just a Jewish convert – she was a Jew in Germany, leading up to WWII. She sought refuge in exile, in the Netherlands. As lesbian and gay Catholics, we too may find that we need to seek refuge in exile – exile from the Church itself, and its hostility to sexual nonconformists. She spoke out against the horrors of the Nazi persecution, and distanced herself from her former teacher. So too, we must speak out against the persecution of minority groups by the institutional Catholic Church, and distance ourselves from those who have taught us distorted interpretations of the faith.

As a Carmelite nun, she had a particular devotion to St John of the Cross (from whom she took her name) and St Theresa of Avila. I do not yet know anything specific about this devotion, quite what aspect of these saints she particularly appreciated, but I do know this. One component of the spirituality of these great mystics is that it was expressed at times in intensely physical, erotic language. This alone makes it particularly attractive and appropriate for use as a spiritual path for gay men in particular.

But it is obviously not simply a spirituality of erotic rapture – St John is after all, known as St John of the Cross! Orthodox Vatican doctrine recognizes that its expectation of compulsory celibacy imposes on us a burden which the heterosexuals are not expected to bear, and explains this as a “cross” that we must carry. I too see a cross in our condition – but I see the cross not in the gift of an orientation given to me by God, but in the unjustified persecution we endure by the church, and promoted by its false teachings, in the wider world.

Stein’s death in the gas chambers, and her later canonization, have been seen in two dramatically different ways. John Paul II canonized her as a martyr, arguing that her arrest and deportation was in direct retaliation for a letter by the Dutch bishops denouncing the Nazis, which in turn may have been prompted by the stance of Edith herself. Jewish groups say she was just one Jewish victim among millions, who should not have been singled out for special treatment.

The same divided perspective applies to those gay and lesbian theologians who have found themselves persecuted by the Vatican for their prophetic witness against its condemnation and scapegoating of “homosexuals” in the Church. One side sees them as near heretics, the other as prophets, and (metaphorically) as martyrs who have seen their careers destroyed for their honesty.

Which view is sound? I know where I stand, but ultimately, we await the judgement of history.

St Theresa Benedicta / Edith Stein – Pray for us.

Queer Saints and Martyrs for August

Saints, martyrs and liturgical feasts in August worth noting for their queer significance, include women deacons (a reminder that clerical ministry has not always been restricted to men), Edith Stein of the Cross, two notable same – sex couples (Bernard of Clairvaulx and Malachi, and John Henry Newman and Ambrose St John), and modern heroes of the movement for LGBT rights.

August

  • Aug 3 rd
    • St Lydia , woman deacon (Womenpriests.org)
  • Aug 5th
    • St Nonna , woman deacon (Womenpriests.org)
  • Aug 13 th

Martha and Mary, Queer Saints.

The household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus is well known to us from the Gospels, where they are described as “sisters” and their brother Lazarus. They are also known to us as Jesus’ friends, and their home as a place he visited for some rest and hospitality.  The problem is, that the story is perhaps too familiar: we are so used to hearing of them and their home since childhood, that we automatically accept the words and visualize the family in modern terms, just as we did as children.  To really understand the significance of this family, we need to consider the social context.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, BEUCKELAER, Joachim (1565)

In the modern West, we are accustomed to a wide range of family and household types. Although the socially approved ideal remains the nuclear family, with one husband, one wife, children and pets, we recognize many others as well: single person households; communal living, especially for young adults; same sex couples; and siblings (or other family members) sharing a home.  In the Biblical world, economic and social conditions dictated that just one model was nearly universal. A patriarchal male established a household, and controlled within it wives, concubines, sons, daughters and slaves. Sons remained within their father’s household and its economic basis until they had the resources to set up on their own. Daughters remained with their families until they were married off by their fathers, to submit to their new husbands. Their entire existence was dependent on the men who controlled them – fathers, brothers, or husbands. A single woman living independently of men was remarkable. Two women living together would have been exceptional. They are described as “sisters”, but that may not be in the literal sense – the term was commonly used to describe what we would describe as a lesbian relationship. This may or may not have included sexual intimacy, but it was most certainly a household in open defiance of the standard gender expectations for women, and so I have no hesitation in describing them as “queer”.

We should also pause a moment, and consider briefly their brother Lazarus. He is best known to us in the story of his rising from the dead, but in the context of the household, he appears to be a minor figure. Although Hebrew families were dominated by the males, with sons taking control of the women after a father’s death, in a household of siblings, we would normally expect that with one brother and two sisters, the man should be the master of the household: but that is emphatically not the picture of Lazarus that comes across from the Gospel. He too can be described as “queer” on that basis alone, although there is a lot more that could be said about Lazarus as a possible lover of Jesus.

This week though, the Church celebrated the feast of Martha and Mary, and so it is on the sisters that I want to concentrate.

When I reflect on the story of Martha and Mary as I have grown up with it since childhood, the image that sits with me indelibly is of the hospitality that they offered. Hospitality should be a core Christian value. In the traditional Hebrew desert community, hospitality to travellers was a primary virtue: without it, they could easily die, and at one time or another, anyone could find himself a traveller in the desert, dependent himself on the hospitality of strangers. The family itself, with its total interdependence, can be seen as a model of mutual, reciprocal hospitality. Through the institution of marriage, creating linkages between households and family networks binding the entire society, hospitality between households was the social glue binding the entire society.

As we know to the present day, the most powerful element and symbol of hospitality is the shared meal. It is not for nothing that the Mass is constructed around the commemoration of a meal. Hospitality and community go to the heart of the Christian ideal: this certainly is how I understand the concept of God’s Kingdom on earth. Where we have full, mutual hospitality and community, love inevitably grows, and there can be no possibility of injustice.

The challenge must be to make  certain that the hospitality really does extend to all. We as gay men an women know to our cost that very often it does not apply to us, and we must continue to work to secure that hospitality for ourselves: but we must likewise ensure that we too, offer hospitality, both within our community and beyond it. Let us never forget that the clearest symbol of hospitality in the Gospels is seen in a queer household.  Let us strive in our modern queer community to model and embody the spirit of hospitality to the wider world.

(See also :

Jesus in Love BlogMartha and Mary: Sisters, or Lesbian Couple?, in Kittredge Cherry’s excellent, continuing  series on LGBT saints

and

Web Gallery of Art for commentary on Bueckelaer’s painting

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SS Symeon of Emessa and John: Hermits, Saints and Lovers

The information for this pair of same sex lovers is sparse, but the story important.  I quote directly from the LGBT Catholic Handbook Calendar of gay & lesbian saints :
The story itself is about a same-sex relationship. Symeon..and John…. meet on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They become friends and “would no longer part from each other”. In fact they abandon their families and go together to dedicate their lives to God. In the monastery they first join, they are tonsured by the abbot who blesses them together (Krueger 139-141, 142). This seems to refer to some early monastic version of the adelphopoiia ceremony.”
Twenty nine years later, they part and their stories diverge. Simeon wants to leave John, as he had earlier left his wife, and becomes know as a “fool for Christ”.  But:
The extent of the relationship is revealed at this point. John is not keen for Symeon to leave. He says to Symeon “……Please, for the Lord’s sake, do not leave wretched me….Rather for the sake of Him who joined us, do not wish to be parted from your brother. You know that, after God, I have no one except you, my brother, but I renounced all and was bound to you, and now you wish to leave me in the desert, as in an open sea. Remember that day when we drew lost and went down to the Lord Nikon, that we agreed not to be separated from one another. Remember that fearful day when we were clothed in the holy habit, and we two were as one soul, so that all were astonished at our love. Don’t forget the words of the great monk…Please don’t lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from You.”
Halsall states that this was not a sexual relationship, but it is clearly an emotionally intimate, same sex relationship.  At a time when “marriage” did not carry the same meaning that it has today;  when many religious married couples, even outside holy orders, were encouraged to remain celibate;  and given that they had entered a monastery before living together as  hermits, this is unremarkable.

But as an intimate relationship over nearly thirty years, consecrated by the abbot in a rite of  adelphopoiia, their story, vague and indistinct as it is, must surely be taken as yet another dimly remembered tale of  gay lovers, buried in the history of the Christian Church, that modern scholarship is beginning to uncover.
Their feast days are celebrated together on 21 st July (Orthodox calendar).
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St Wilgefortis / Uncumber / Liberada: Saintly Bearded Woman?

A wonderful example of a sainted bearded lady?

Wilgefortis

Unfortunately, she may also be an example of a ‘saint’ whose biography is more popular fiction than recorded history. Still, she is listed in the standard catholic reference works, and has had an official feast day, as well as a bewildering array of aliases, among them Liberata, Kummernis,  Uncumber, and Livrade,  Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love blog expands on these names, with some notes on their origins:

The name Wilgefortis may come from the Latin “virgo fortis” (strong virgin). In Spanish she is Librada — meaning “liberated” from hardship and/or husbands. She also goes by a bewildering variety of other names. Her alternate English name Uncumber means escaper. In addition, she is known as Liberata, Livrade, Kummernis, Komina, Comera, Cumerana, Ulfe, Ontcommen, Dignefortis, Europia, and Reginfledis.

Jesus in Love

Continue reading St Wilgefortis / Uncumber / Liberada: Saintly Bearded Woman?

Will “Ministries of Welcoming” for returning Catholics result in an aborted landing for LGBTs?

Saturday 5th July saw a well–attended all–day workshop at London’s Heythrop College to mark the UK re-launch of the “Landings” programme to welcome back into the Church Catholics, who for one reason or another, feel disaffected or alienated from the Church and have either stopped participating in the life of the Church or who do so only sporadically. When I first read about this UK re-launch some months ago, I was enthusiastic, and signed up immediately: I was a beneficiary of the programme a few years ago, when it was a key point in my own journey (not back into the life of the Church, but into full participation in a local parish).

The published promotional material, under the title “Ministries of Welcoming in the Church: A Conference on Healing and Reconciliation” sounded good, with two keynote addresses, and supporting workshops dealing with specific groups of disaffected or alienated people:

  • Those separated or divorced
  • Women
  • Prisoners
  • Those who have been traumatised or abused
  • An ecumenical model of reconciliation
  • Interfaith reconciliation

But there’s a problem: can you spot the obvious omission? Continue reading Will “Ministries of Welcoming” for returning Catholics result in an aborted landing for LGBTs?